Lockout? What lockout? NHL labor strife ends

A hockey fan holds a sign during Sunday's AHL game after an agreement was announced. CHRIS SEWARD / Raleigh News & Observer
A hockey fan holds a sign during Sunday's AHL game after an agreement was announced. CHRIS SEWARD / Raleigh News & Observer
Posted: January 07, 2013

After a long, overnight negotiating session lasting nearly 16 hours - or roughly the time it takes the Eagles and Chip Kelly to go from calamari to cheesecake - the National Hockey League and its players emerged from a New York hotel room early Sunday morning with a new collective bargaining agreement.

There are three ways to look at this news, which was delivered in the wee hours by commissioner Gary Bettman and union boss Donald Fehr to a small contingent of unwashed reporters, five guys listening on radio in Canada, and exactly no one else. All three responses are valid, depending on whom is doing the responding, and all three are predictable.

Unshakable hockey fans (minimum three jerseys in closet) will say: "That was annoying, but now that hockey is back, all is forgiven. When can I start buying tickets?"

Sports fans with a casual interest in hockey (no jerseys but can name more than half the teams in the league) will say: "It wouldn't have bothered me if those greedy morons never played again, but I'm sure I'll tune in to some games once the playoffs get good."

Those with very minimal or no interest in hockey (60 to 70 percent of U.S. sports fans, by most estimates) will say: "There was a lockout?"

NHL owners, even the most deluded, understand their game's pecking order in the cosmos of professional sports. That is why they forced the lockout in the first place, squeezing the players for a bigger piece of the revenue pie even as the league was coming off a record moneymaking season.

The new deal will be in place for at least eight years, so the owners were willing to accept a short-term public relations hit - and, honestly, no group is less bothered by being called stupid than NHL owners - in order to secure greater financial security for the next decade.

The guts of the agreement, bumping the league's revenue share from 43 percent to 50 percent, has been in place for a while. The owners made it clear they would die on that beach. After that became obvious, it was just a matter of moving around some decimal points with the pension program and player-contract language and some other side issues. It should have been done months ago, but the two sides hate each other wicked and they had to walk the edge of self-immolation before the heat got to them.

Hockey players are a different animal when they form a negotiating group. Baseball players, basketball players, and football players tend to be more pragmatic, more willing to settle for an average bargaining agreement rather than risk the pain of something as devastating as a lost season.

Hockey is all about accepting pain and sticking together, however. It is what the players have been told since their first shift on the ice. Be willing to suffer, stay as one unit, and hate the guy in the other sweater.

That mind-set makes for a good hockey player, but it makes for a difficult negotiating opponent. The problem is compounded when the guys calling the shots on the other side of the table are either old hockey players or those who think the same way.

Add the fact that, in Bettman and Fehr, the two sides brought incredibly polarizing personalities to the drama, and it's no wonder the length of the negotiations made no sense. The owners view Fehr as a meddling outsider, and, of course, that's the way the hockey players see Bettman, even after nearly 20 years in the commissioner's office. Hating the guy in the other sweater has never been so easy.

So, that's what took so long. It was a nasty scrum in the corner, and those who tried to referee the brawl didn't even have whistles. The players knew they were going to lose the war, and despite pension gains and some make-good money to hide the scars, that's what happened. If revenue levels stay constant, the owners took more than $200 million annually out of the players' pockets.

Before the war ended, however, the players were determined to win some battles and make the owners remember them. That was accomplished, too, but it took place while the majority of sports fans yawned.

Will things return to normal now? Sure. It isn't as if the NHL couldn't afford to lose one-third of its tedious regular season. Maybe the playoffs won't end until the 4th of July, but the real fans won't care, and neither will the non-fans.

That's the news: The NHL lockout is over, and hockey will be back soon. How you feel about that has nothing to do with what is in your heart. It's all about what you have in your closet.

Contact Bob Ford at bford@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @bobfordsports. Read his blog, "Post Patterns," at www.philly.com/postpatterns

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